NICHOLAS BERRY. Almighty Matters: God’s Hidden Politics in the Bible, Wipf and Stock Publishers: Eugene, Oregon; 2015, Pp. 135, $21.00 (U.S.)
Almighty Matters: God’s Hidden Politics in the Bible is written from the Constantinian perspective that God’s political agenda for his people today is best accomplished by uniting church and state. Arriving at this conclusion, Nicholas Berry explores the underlying politics of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures by shedding light on their political-theological connection. He follows a traditional understanding that the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament outlines God’s agenda of government for his chosen people, but challenges convention by viewing Jesus as a politician who seeks to subvert the Roman Empire, uniting church and state for the purpose of protection and growth.
Berry is Professor of Politics Emeritus at Ursinus College, a political science author, columnist, and former Fulbright Scholar at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He is not a biblical scholar or theologian, but takes the Bible seriously, believing that linking the Hebrew and Christian Bibles reveals a hidden political progression.
So how does Berry arrive at the conclusion that the Bible supports a church-and-state union in which the politics of Jesus would subvert the Roman Empire as divine will? At its core, he sees the politics of the New Testament as an extension of the politics in the Old Testament. How then does Berry support his thesis?
God elects the Hebrews to be his chosen people and gives them title to the Promised Land, but a famine finds them in Egypt where they are enslaved. God then choses Moses, charging him to lead them out of bondage. He listens to God, and unites them into a nation with a religion, law, culture, and soldiers. He is a brilliant leader of a religious-political movement.
Joshua, who Berry portrays as a great military leader, takes God’s people into the Promised Land. Most of Canaan is conquered. Over centuries, the tribal structure led by judges and then the rise of the monarchy develop this movement. The nation of Israel prospers, but eventually division, corruption, and then defeat end in exile in Babylon. Even a return from exile doesn’t halt the trend. Occupation begins, and ultimately Rome takes control.
God’s response is to send Jesus to redeem his people by creating a religious-political movement. Jesus accomplishes his purpose, but it results in his execution as a political activist. His disciples are tasked with spreading Jesus’ movement to the Gentiles. Their purpose was to partner with the Jews, to organize, multiply, and eventually subvert the Roman Empire. With political power protecting both faiths, Berry concludes that all will be well. The Old and New Testaments present one seamless political-religious story.
What then, are the strengths and weaknesses of the book?
I appreciated Berry’s insight that there is a direct connection between God, creation, human nature, and a political philosophy that empowers equitable behavior for all. Central to the author’s thinking is the understanding that human nature is essentially good or evil. Berry develops the political philosophy that if one believes that human behavior tends toward evil and must be checked, good governance will ensure this check by separating judicial, executive, and legislative powers. On the other hand, if philosophers and politicians understand human nature to be primarily benevolent, then few checks and balances are necessary. The problem with this form of government is that it tends to deny liberty to the people and enrich the leaders.
Another strength of the book is that it illustrates well that not only our socio-economic views, but also our understanding of politics will affect the way we read the Bible. Berry, as a Western Christian political scientist and neither a biblical scholar nor theologian, reads the Bible through that cultural lens, and arrives at the conclusion that Jesus is a politician whose desire is to subvert the Roman Empire, uniting church and state for the purpose of Christian protection and expansion. I find that conclusion contrary to the biblical perspective of the kingdom of God that Jesus came to fulfill. Yet I am fascinated by his logic and perspective.
Having said that, I find his supposition that the Old and New Testaments present a seamless political-religious story to be unfounded. Even though Berry takes the Bible at face value, I disagree with his interpretation. He writes:
The prophets are wrong, or at least they fail to portray the complete picture. They see the conquest through a purely religious perspective, missing a practical political reason. The conquest and those that follow—Persian, Greek and Roman—have little to do with sin. The Jews are done in by their reliance on their military culture, their neglect of diplomacy, devastating conflicts between Israel and Judah, and their religious structure that biologically restrict the size of their nation. In an era of large warrior empires, the numbers limited Jews are doomed. They don’t understand that their militant political-religious culture condemns their state. (xii).
Berry’s political analysis of the Old and New Testament does not convince me that it was God’s intention to form an empire, a worldly nation-state with laws and an army to maintain dominance and control. Rather, the divine purpose was to form a holy people, a nation that loved God and neighbor. Israel was to be a missional people, a society in contrast to the world. They were not to become like other nations. When Israel asked Samuel for a king (1 Sam. 8:5), it is clear that both God and the prophet-judge did not want an earthly king. Governance by kings was clearly a divine compromise in the Old Testament. How then can Berry, with integrity, maintain his thesis and not even discuss this pivotal key governance change?
Reading the New Testament, Berry views Jesus as a politician on a campaign. His strategy is to redeem his people, both Jews and Gentiles, through a peaceable kingdom which unfolds through an apocalyptic event in which evil is destroyed: “Jesus invents politics for the masses. He lays the foundation for the subversion of the Roman Empire” (xiii). I agree with that part of his analysis, but when he supports a Constantinian shift, viewing the union of church and state as the desired outcome of Christ’s apostolic mission, it is like saying that God wanted Israel in the Old Testament to have a king and become just like the other nations.
I was also surprised by the brevity of Berry’s half-page bibliography with only ten sources, no index, and no footnotes apart from biblical references. Where his political analysis is his own and when it comes from other sources is not specified. I finished reading the book unconvinced that his political analysis was correct.
Author: Curtis W. Book
Curtis Book worked for 23 years with Brethren in Christ World Missions in four countries doing theological education. Currently he is peace and justice coordinator for MCC East Coast, based in Philadelphia, PA.